As a small team from Columbia Journalism School investigates the discredited Nov. 19 Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” it’ll want to take a look at one curious aspect of the piece.
The lede of the story, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, stirred national outrage, depicting a September 2012 gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house suffered by a then-freshman named Jackie. Deeper in the piece, however, is a case of sexual assault that drew far less attention, and it was apparently the topic of some disagreement between the magazine and the university prior to publication.
A first-year student identified as “Stacy” last spring brought allegations against a “male friend,” according to Erdely. Stacy “filed a report stating that while vomiting up too much whiskey into a male friend’s toilet one night, he groped her, plunged his hands down her sweatpants and then, after carrying her semi-conscious to his bed, digitally penetrated her,” says the piece.
According to Rolling Stone, Stacy discovered “two other women with stories of assault by the same man.” She drew encouragement to pursue a disciplinary case against the man because of a policy prescribing expulsion for “multiple” assaults by a single offender. The university’s Sexual Misconduct Board, reports Erdely, found the man guilty of assaulting Stacy. Erdely quotes Stacy as reacting, “I was like, ‘He’s gone!’ ‘Cause he’s a multiple assailant, I’d been told so many times that that was grounds for expulsion!” Yet Stacy was “stunned” after learning that he’d drawn a mere one-year suspension. It’s unclear whether Rolling Stone attempted to reach the accused assailant.
At the tail end of the anecdote, Rolling Stone drops in this parenthetical: “(Citing privacy laws, UVA would not comment on this or any case.)”
On first read, that appears logical and pro forma. Universities, after all, cannot and should not discuss the particulars of sexual assault incidents with reporters. The paper trail from this story, though, raises questions about the parenthetical. According to e-mails secured last week by the Erik Wemple Blog and other media outlets under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the university attempted to warn Rolling Stone about a line of inquiry that resembles the incident involving Stacy.
In an Oct. 9 e-mail, university spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn told Erdely the following, among other things: “As we said during our phone interview, federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing details of any sexual assault report, investigation, or hearing. That said, your characterization of the facts of the spring 2014 case you referenced during our interview is incorrect.” A month later, on Nov. 13, de Bruyn sent a similar message to a Rolling Stone fact-checker, only this time with greater detail:
As I mentioned to you, we have expressed our concern to Sabrina regarding what we believe to be her mischaracterization of facts about a case that occurred in Spring 2014. I recall I mentioned this to you on the phone. It has been brought to our attention by a few students that Sabrina has spoken to that she is referencing an incident where a male student raped three different women and received a one-year suspension. This is in fact objectively false. As I told Sabrina at the time, federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing details of any sexual assault report, so we can’t say more.
Time for caveats:
*It’s possible that the incident referenced by de Bruyn in the e-mails is different from Stacy’s story.
*It’s possible that, in response to de Bruyn’s warnings, Rolling Stone refined its characterization to comport with the university’s position. Consider that in his Nov. 13 message, de Bruyn was concerned about a set of facts in which “a male student raped three different women.” Erdely’s reporting doesn’t go that far; it cites Stacy’s allegations as well as two other “stories of assault.” Sexual assault can include instances of unwanted touching or fondling. (Stacy is quoted as alleging “two rapes and an assault.”)
*It’s also possible that the university was quibbling about some narrow and insignificant aspect of the case in order to push Rolling Stone away from an important set of facts. For instance, the Rolling Stone piece does contain the following paragraph, which delivers a fine point on the adjudication of the case:
Turns out, when UVA personnel speak of expulsion for “multiple assaults,” they mean multiple complaints that are filed with the Sexual Misconduct Board, and then adjudicated guilty. Under that more precise definition, the two other cases introduced in Stacy’s case didn’t count toward his penalty. Stacy feels offended by the outcome and misled by the deans. “After two rapes and an assault, to let him back on grounds is an insult to the honor system that UVA brags about,” she says. “UVA doesn’t want to expel. They were too afraid of getting negative publicity or the pants sued off them.”
Yet the story of Stacy and the anecdote referenced by de Bruyn align on the broad outlines. For some reason, however, Rolling Stone decided not to tell its readers that the university had judged Erdely’s reporting on (what appears to be) the case of Stacy “objectively false.” Why?
In an attempt to straighten out this matter, the Erik Wemple Blog asked U-Va. whether the case that de Bruyn cited in his e-mails was, in fact, the same as Stacy’s experience, and whether Rolling Stone had amended its reporting to take into account the university’s pushback. De Bruyn responded, “The University respectfully declines to comment on the records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. The University remains focused on the well-being of all students, and especially any survivor of sexual assault. There is important work ahead regarding our efforts to strengthen student safety.”
Rolling Stone didn’t respond specifically to similar questions, though earlier this week it did pass along its announcement that Columbia Journalism School would be auditing its work on “A Rape on Campus.” Dean Steve Coll and Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel will examine the “editorial process that led to the publication of this story,” according to the Rolling Stone announcement. That’s a lot of work, in light of the magazine’s decision to defer to Jackie’s wishes not to contact the alleged assailants; not to contact three friends of Jackie’s who responded to her call for help after the alleged incident; to apparently rely entirely on Jackie’s testimony to allege two other gang-rape incidents; and to publish the entire investigative piece in spite of its reportorial shortcomings.
Let’s hope the Columbia Journalism School people find that Rolling Stone correctly abridged the case of Stacy, though they’ll find little supporting documentation from the story itself, which lacks reporting from the accused as well as specifics on the other assaults allegedly perpetrated by Stacy’s assailant. In that sense, the Stacy anecdote resembles other key points in “A Rape on Campus.”